Lame Elephants

At Maison Blanche, a trendy eatery near the White House, the staff is in shock. Ask a waiter about the possible arrival of Bill Clinton's Arkansas hordes, and he sniffs: "They'll probably be ordering everything with ketchup."

At Bush-Quayle campaign headquarters, the mood is grim and the humor runs to pitch black. "It's over," concedes a top campaign official. The hottest item on the Death Watch underground? Bootleg videotapes of Budget Director Richard G. Darman masquerading as Clinton and savaging President Bush's economic policies in a mock debate.

Slowly, but with a sigh of finality, a Washington accustomed to 12 years of dynastic Republicanism is bracing for the onslaught of the Democratic Visigoths. And no one is bracing more than the city's elite lobbying firms and trade associations. There, one can hear the rustle of phone books being frantically thumbed, as Republicans struggle to find someone--anyone--who has a friend who went to Oxford with Clinton.

Elections like this one are tough, says Washington attorney Frank Shuchat: "Republican Rolodexes become redundant." Adds Democratic lobbyist Mark Siegel: "A lot of people cut themselves off from Democratic decision-makers thinking that they would never have to deal with them in their lifetime. Now, their worst nightmare is coming true."

Some of the biggest jitters are being felt by foreign corporations, drug manufacturers, the medical lobby, and insurance companies. Clinton has vowed to end alleged price-gouging by drugmakers and hinted at price controls. So the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Assn. has been trying to open direct lines of communication to Little Rock. And when Clinton recently toured a Merck & Co. facility, company officials made the case for restraint.

Food-industry lobbyists aren't taking any chances, either. Fearful that Clinton might mandate tough labeling rules, food processors are seeking out the few friendly faces they can find in the Clinton camp. One contact: Caren Wilcox, a Hershey Foods Corp. government-relations director who has taken a leave to work on Clinton's political staff.

`A SPLENDID TIME.' But business has no idea whether these overtures will pay off. "A lot of this early lobbying is wasted," says a top biotech lobbyist. "The best story I've heard is of a European Community official who went to Little Rock and wound up sitting in a cafeteria talking to some 27-year-old who was trying not to fall asleep."

Still, they come, checking into Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel and occasionally ordering something daring, such as chicken fried steak, at a local restaurant. Four top officials of the American Medical Assn. made the trek in September to chat up Campaign Manager David Wilhelm and Atul Gawande, the young aide in charge of health issues. Clinton wants to include a plan to control health costs in his "100 Days" agenda, and doctors worry about his goal of setting a government cap on health spending.

Hospitals are just as nervous. Michael D. Bromberg, executive director of the Federation of American Health Systems, says he has already had several contacts with Clinton people. "Our concern is: Who will control the heart and soul of Bill Clinton over health care?" He's trying to figure out who will wind up on Clinton's transition team. But that approach may not reap big dividends this time. The Arkansan may bar transition-team members from cashing in after January by prohibiting them from lobbying Administration contacts in their areas of expertise.

Even that Perot-like chastity can't dampen the spirits of long-exiled Democrats. Frank Mankiewicz, vice-chairman of the Hill & Knowlton lobbying empire, says: "I'm looking at the transition as a splendid time." No wonder. Mankiewicz's firm is chock-full of such prominent Democrats as former union lobbyist Howard Paster and former Carter aide Anne Wexler. "The lobbying business for some time has been mostly a Republican business," Mankiewicz says. "That's about to change."

Despite the fear in GOP lobbying ranks, some Republicans feel that the changing of the guard in Washington may turn out to be good for business. "We're going to take on maybe two more Democratic partners," says a top executive in an old-line GOP lobbying shop. A sign of the times: Cassidy & Associates Inc., a big Washington outfit, has just signed on House Ways & Means Committee member Marty Russo (D-Ill.), who lost his primary this year.

Grins a principal of one top GOP lobbying firm: "Whenever an Administration that's perceived as antibusiness takes over, lobbyists thrive.... We'll do all right." In fact, they're betting their Guccis on it.

      An irreverent guide to the capital's emerging power structure
      WHO'S IN                               WHO'S OUT
      Democratic National Chairman           Home of top Bush campaign official
      Ron Brown's firm                       Charlie Black. B-r-r.
      Teachers gave Clinton                  Clinton is aiming his budget ax
      an A-plus                              at drugmakers
      Did somebody say infrastructure?       A supply-side redoubt
      Clinton's favorite centrist            Back to Fringe City
      think tank
      Washington's soul-food mecca           Where Republican bigwigs whine and
      for hungry Little Rockers              dine. Tres outre.